Meet the latest soul diva coming straight outta Croydon

From a south London soul collective to a newcomer award: Tawiah talks to Matilda Egere-Cooper
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The Independent Culture

"From my experience, as soon as you say you do soul music and you're from the UK, it's like a dirty word," says the bubbling newcomer Tawiah, with a shrug. Odd, then, that only a few days earlier, the 21-year-old was among hundreds of non-conformists and wacky types at Gilles Peterson's annual Worldwide Awards, where the only thing considered smutty was a reveller's panty-peeking hipsters and the eclectic groove of one of the night's winners, 2 Banks of Four.

Honoured with the new BBC Introducing... award, the singer – clad in the Japan-meets-street-chick garb that's come to be her trademark – capped her shy acceptance speech with a rendition of "Watch Out". It's a stirring lament that is proving popular at the moment, thanks to its appearance on Peterson's Bubbler's Two compilation.

At the ceremony, Tawiah was enchanting, if not addictive, to watch; her mighty vocals thundered through the venue as she delivered the melodies with razor-sharp accuracy. A few songs more, and Tawiah was being showered with applause. "It was amazing," she agrees, reflecting on the moment. "For the first time, I finally felt like I'm getting recognised for me as an artist, doing my own thing."

As the latest name to come out of the underground scene, Tawiah is rather a big deal. Since graduating from Croydon's Brit school of the performing arts three years ago, she has been working the live circuit, hooking up sensational backing vocals for the likes of Corinne Bailey Rae, the Guillemots, Lemar and Basement Jaxx.

She has also been Mark Ronson's honorary female singer on his international tours, standing in for his muses Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen, on "Valerie" and "Oh My God". She explains: "I'm the south London chick with the super-soulful voice who takes on the tracks and does her own thing. Fans obviously wanna see Lily or Amy, but they get me. I put my own flip on it, and people end up loving it."

Watch Tawiah perform 'Valerie' with Mark Ronson at Glastonbury 2007

The singer recently released her first EP, In Jodi's Bedroom, on her own label, Bush Girl Records. It pays homage to her sessions with producer and best friend Jodi Milliner, as well as to her music influences, which range from gospel to Ghanaian highlife, her heritage. She decided to release the taster CD to satisfy the demand for her music that has been building up since she's been on the road.

"For years, people have been like, 'Can I buy something?' and I'd be like, 'Aaargh!', because I didn't have anything. So it got to a point where I wanna be, like, 'Yeah, actually, here you go, here's my EP'. And it's given me a kick up my arse to get my album done!"

Her appeal is understandable. On stage, her presence is arresting while the music, focusing mainly on love and relationships, ticks all the boxes for quality and creative soul music. On YouTube, you'll find a clip of her stealing the spotlight at a Natalie Williams gig, as she clears the floor with her zealous dance steps.

Watch Tawiah's show-stealing dance moves here

Yet, when we meet in Brixton, she's quite a contradiction – reserved, borderline shy. "People who meet me offstage and then see me onstage are often shocked, because I can be really mellow. It depends on what day you get me. Sometimes I'm on a hype, but a lot of the time I'm quiet, and I like to observe things."

She's endearingly south London, frequently describing things she adores, like Ella Fitzgerald, Björk and the gospel singer Kim Burrell, as "lashing". Then there's her style. Today, she's wearing a vest-and-hoodie combo with jeans and trainers ("The last time I wore a dress was two years ago"). Her hair – part shaved, part dreads – hides under a woolly hat. "People have a lot to say about my crazy style. But I like crazy things, I don't like plain things. I get bored easily. I guess it's just a combo of loving art and loving fashion."

Tawiah is sweet with a subtle sense of humour, unlike most of the mouthy female vocalists that have flooded the market. Despite her Brit School pedigree, she has avoided comparisons to her friend Winehouse. As for the rest of her newly successful schoolchums ("Me and Adele used to speak quite a bit, and me and Kate Nash were train buddies"), she says that while they may all be trying to occupy that same coveted spot within the industry, she doesn't consider them unworthy contenders. "I see my own music as a different thing. I don't really see anyone as competition."

Yet does she wonder why the mainstream acclaim of the likes of Adele and Nash has eluded her so far? "Watch Out" isn't so far removed from the sentiment of "Chasing Pavements", and it's easy to wonder if race might play a part. Black singers doing black music is a standard, but white soul singers often raise eyebrows – and become overnight stars. She hesitates. "It does seem to be like if a white person has a soulful voice, it's, 'Ooh, she's so soulful,' rather than a black person. I try not to think about race when I'm doing my thing. I'm trying not to get hung up on the fact that I'm black, doing the music that I'm doing.

"I was talking to my friend the other day, and he asked, 'Why aren't you in the ones-to-watch for 2008?' I was just like, it's cool, I'm not even tripping. For me, it's a journey and this is the beginning. People will eventually hear. I'm trying not to let things like that disturb me. It's hard not to get caught up in it and to get discouraged, but I feel things will get there eventually."

Born Beverley Tawiah, she knew she'd be a singer "from a young age", and was of the Nineties generation fed on a steady diet of Mary J Blige, Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu and D'Angelo. "Music has always been with me from day dot," she says. "I'm just a bit podgier now!"

The middle child of a caterer mum and businessman dad, the sporty Battersea girl sang in a group in her church before auditioning for the Brit School with a clarinet solo. She says her five years at the school were the best – she got to give the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh a guided tour of the school when she was 16. "I was selected to meet the Queen, and I got to show Prince Philip around. She also got a [Brits School] CD and she said she'd listen to it, but I don't know whether she did. She seemed really impressed by the school."

Tawiah is proud of her Brit schooling, which has produced dozens of talents, such as Leona Lewis, Katie Melua and Richard Jones of The Feeling. "Brit gave you space," she says. "It didn't tell you, 'You must do this and you must do that.' It just gave you space to grow. And it definitely doesn't churn out the same characters. There are a lot of individual people who go to Brit, and it's so diverse."

Although she went on to sing in a chamber choir and was working to master percussion and classical guitar in her spare time, an open-mic spot at songwriter Michelle Escoffery's London soul monthly Kindred Spirit launched her career. She joined a collective of soul sisters deprived of a major profile (but having fun nonetheless), which included Vula Malinga of Basement Jaxx, Sharlene Hector and Eska Mtungwazi, who took the young Tawiah under her wing and put her on backing-vocal duties. Mark de Clive-Lowe, a DJ with a soft spot for soul vocalists, took notice and added her to his tour. She took part in a project called OneTaste, which toured the major music festivals. Then there was the Ronson job, followed by the rare invite to join US soul singer Bilal on stage at a show at London's Jazz Café for an impromptu jam.

She's now at a crossroads in her career. She's one of the best singers the urban music scene has produced for a while, but she's also being careful not to get caught up in the whirlwind. A discussion about Winehouse leads her to say that she's thankful she never got caught up in the "things I've seen on tour", and she's keen to let her career pan out steadily.

She hosted a launch party for the release of her EP ("It was amaaazing! It was so fun, it was rampacked") and she hopes to release her full-length album in the summer. It's expected to feature input from Ronson. She's happy to settle for the limitations of being independent – for the time being at least. "I'm doing this all by myself. I don't have a label, but I'm pretty happy with things so far. People are starting to take notice."

She figures that by the time she's 30, she'll be established enough to let fame take its course without compromising her craft. "I want to have a long career," she says. "I feel like I will do well. It's important that I do my thing and just keep building it and building it and getting a bigger fan-base. As long as I stay honest with the music and do what I do, I will shine through. I believe that."

'In Jodi's Bedroom' is out now on Bush Girl Records